TV Review: Season Two of ‘Hacks’ Is Uneven, But Smartly Makes the Most of Its Biggest Asset

Catherine Springer reviews season two of Hacks, which may be uneven, but puts its lead stars in the best light.
User Rating: 7

There may have never been a more perfect pairing of actor-to-role than that of Jean Smart to legendary comedienne Deborah Vance, the character she plays on the award-winning HBO Max series, Hacks. The veteran actress has never seemed more at home or better matched with material seemingly custom-made for her. I’m here to report that season two of the series, which launched Smart into the full-fledged Jean-aissance that she so richly deserves, gives her just as much to sink her teeth into and furthers our continuing love affair with her.

That’s not to say there isn’t a to-be-expected dip in the overall effect of season two compared to the spectacular season one. Sophomore slumps are real, and it would have been difficult to fully replicate the transformative and invigorating freshness of the first season, but creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky smartly recognize the rare gift that they have in Smart and continue to focus the narrative nearly 100% on expanding and exploring her character, which certainly helps overcome any deficiencies in the somewhat unfocused story.

Season two picks up right where they left off. Ava (Hannah Einbinder), Deborah’s writer, finds out that an email she had written in a fit of rage, after having tempestuously quit working for Deborah, has been received and read by producers looking to make a television series loosely based on Deborah’s life. In the email, Ava angrily reveals some scandalous stories about Deborah, stories that would surely humiliate her if they got out. But Ava and Deborah had reconciled just after the email was sent, so Ava is left desperately trying to un-ring that bell, hoping that her manager, Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), can magically talk the producers into ignoring the email and that she can somehow find a way to make sure Deborah never knows it ever happened.

Without revealing how or if the scandal of “emailgate” gets resolved or not, season two’s main plotline involves Deborah and Ava on a road trip cross-country, designed to give Deborah plenty of chances to work out her new material. Even though Deborah is a multi-millionaire, she feels the need to return to her roots and decides to eschew the private jets and take her tour old-school, so they travel by bus. It’s a properly pimped-out bus, of course, but it still is designed to get Deborah back to her roots by playing small venues and doing drop-ins to dive clubs and state fairs in the middle of America to try out her new set, one that’s more personal and self-reflective. Ava’s influence, by being the one person in Deborah’s circle who speaks the truth to her, has had an effect, and Ava successfully convinced Deborah that the way to revive her dying career was to change it up and be more authentic.

While Deborah instinctively pushes back on every suggestion Ava makes because she is the complete opposite of Deborah in nearly every way, she also realizes that Ava has a lot that she can learn from. The beauty of Hacks is in the push-pull love/hate between Ava and Deborah, and Smart and Einbinder are so good playing off each other. Einbinder suffers from playing a character who is difficult to like, primarily because she embodies every cliché of youth today. Still, her character’s purpose, to serve as Deborah’s foil, is perfectly tuned, and Einbinder makes the absolute most of being both Deborah’s and the writers’ punching bag. We love to see Deborah playfully—or not-so-playfully—bully Ava, but we also love to see Ava’s perspective and insistence on change slowly alter Deborah’s worldview. It is a delicate dance, and the chemistry between the actresses is reminiscent of some of the great comedic pairings in television history.

Because the show focuses so much on Ava and Deborah’s dynamic and ever-changing relationship, however, there isn’t much time to spend on expanding other characters. In season two, Marcus, Deborah’s trusted and dedicated associate, played by Carl Clemons-Hopkins, gets relegated to the background. Both the character and the actor deserve more than he’s given. Kaitlin Olson, who plays Deborah’s daughter, DJ, is given even less, relegating two of the series’s most enjoyable characters to the sidelines in season two, which is disappointing. Laurie Metcalf also has a distractingly poorly-written and poorly-acted supporting performance that is as surprising as it is bad, proof that even the best actors can occasionally stumble.

Adding to the unevenness of the season is the overall lack of focus in the story. While it’s great fun to watch Ava and Deborah spar, it needs to be going somewhere, and season two feels like treading water, as the first six episodes are a series of vignettes rather than connected stops on a journey. As Deborah works through her transformative personal process, crafting a set that is more reflective of her life and who she really is, it seems as though the writers feel the need to artificially put her into situations that force self-reflection, not all of them as organically as they should be.

Still, no matter what else Hacks is, it is, first and foremost, a comedy and a showcase for the magnificent Jean Smart and her boatload of skills, every one of which is utilized. It seemed impossible for Smart to be better than she was in season one, but she finds a new gear in season two, exploring each of Deborah’s demons and gifts with ease. In the hands of Jean Smart, Deborah Vance is vulnerable, sexy, catty, jealous, loyal, self-reflective, cruel, and kind, often in the same scene. But mostly, she is funny. She awakens the classic cliché that the funnier a comic is onstage, the more depressed and complicated they are off it. Smart’s deft ability to make us laugh uproariously one moment while seeing the pain behind her eyes the next is a rare skill. And Smart is a rare talent.

For whatever Hacks may be lacking in season two, it makes up for with a bigger, bolder, and even more entertaining performance from Jean Smart–reason alone to not miss a single moment.

Season 2 of Hacks will be available to stream on HBO Max starting May 12, 2022.

7
Good
Written by
Catherine is a senior writer for We Live Entertainment. She has also written for Awards Watch, In Session Film, and Awards Radar. She is Rotten Tomatoes-approved and a proud member of The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, and the Online Association of Female Film Critics. Offline, she loves baseball, World Cup soccer and all things ‘80s.

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